Shanghai, the world’s third-largest city, has been frantic about garbage sorting tips since July 1, when the so-called “strictest garbage regulation in the history” became law. It will soon spread to 45 other Chinese cities. 

Shanghai’s compulsory garbage-sorting regulation has sent its 26.3 million residents into a soul-searching crisis, prompting existential questions like “What garbage are you?” from neighborhood trash volunteers.

These vigilantes query residents as they bring waste to sorting centers in neighborhoods all around Shanghai. 

Shanghai is hardly the only city where waste management has moved to front and center. Since China’s 2017 foreign trash ban, municipalities around the world are searching for ways to manage their growing heaps of trash. Global tech companies are offering solutions.

The ban has led to recyclables being diverted to landfills in the U.S. and garbage shipped to Southeast Asia countries like Malaysia. 

Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent have all rolled out “garbage sorting” functions on their websites and apps this year that answer questions about how to categorize specific pieces of garbage. WeChat even rolled out garbage bags with QR codes recently that tracks which garbage comes from which household. 

Others sensed business opportunities to provide busy Shanghainese with garbage sorting services. It’s predicted that China’s recycling industry is going to generate $21 billion in 2020. 

Properly sorting garbage is only the first step of waste management. After garbage hits the right recycle bins, a series of processes take place out of the public eye, as trash is picked up by haulers and shipped to treatment centers. There are companies working to improve every aspect of waste management. 

Controlling the contamination in recyclables is critical to waste management, especially after China banned the import of foreign solid waste two years ago that has higher than 0.5% contamination. 

Active Monitoring

For waste management companies, it’s not enough to rely on households and companies’ improved disposal habits. Actively monitoring what’s going into a dumpster can reduce contamination and safety hazards, according to a June 10 Waste 360 interview with Nathiel Egosi, CEO of national recycling facilities RRT Design & Construction in Melville, New York. 

San Francisco-based Compology puts cameras in Dumpsters to monitor what’s going in. It utilizes image recognition technology and artificial intelligence, and sends alerts about the fullness and contamination, so that recyclers can identify contamination and avoid sending it downstream. 

“Artificial intelligence and image recognition are the future of solving the recycling problem,” said Reza Kashani, head of marketing of Compology, told Karma in an interview.

China’s Laiyue Recycling has developed a blockchain-based scrap metal transaction system, cutting out middlemen and enabling payments through Alipay and WeChat. Transaction details are recorded on Laiyue’s public ledger, providing documents for tax purposes. The company said taxation is a major difficulty hindering China’s recycling industry due to the murkiness of the supply chain. 

Collection and shipping recyclables is expected to produce fewer emissions in the future. While Volvo’s electric garbage truck will hit the road in New York City in 2020, Sacramento, California has implemented Motiv Power’s electric refuse vehicles, which is said to save up to 6,000 gallons of fuel every year.

Another way of cutting emissions is to improve haulers’ pickup routes. New Jersey’s blockchain startup RecycleGo offers an Uber-like app that sends drivers along the most efficient pick-up route. In addition, the unchangeable nature of blockchain allows the company to provide recycling verification.

Artificial intelligence and biotech are improving performance in recycling centers. AMP Robotics Corp. rolled out its AI-powered robots that can sort garbage twice as fast as an average worker, according to a WSJ report

Organic waste is facing more challenges. Australia’s Environment Protection Authority in October suspended household organic garbage from being sold to farms out of concern that it might contaminate the soil. Shanghai’s Yuanshi Environment has developed a biotech solution to deal with kitchen garbage, manure and dead livestock. Yuanshi’s industrial-farmed maggots feed on organic waste and turn it into high-protein fertilizer. 

“China’s regulation shined a light on an existing problem and forced our industry to start taking a more serious look,” said Kashani. “We are going to see a global shift and transition to using technology to solve the recycling challenge.”